On April 27, Georgia Gov. Nathan deal signed into law a criminal justice bill that proposed numerous reforms to the current state justice system. One of the primary reforms is lifting the ban that previously prohibited drug offenders from receiving food stamps after being released from prison.
Before the bill passed, Georgia followed federal law, which places a lifetime ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for drug-related felons. States can choose to opt out of the law, and Georgia is not the only state to do so.
This year, Alabama and Texas also modified their benefit allocation laws for those convicted of drug-related crimes. Only eight states—Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia— still impose the federal ban with no modifications.
Georgia’s new law will not completely lift the current lifetime ban placed on drug-related felons. Instead, eligibility for benefits may now depend on one’s terms of parole or may include mandatory participation in drug treatment.
“For 20 years now, Georgia has been one of many states that has made felons unable to have food assistance for life,” said Dr. Grace Bagwell Adams, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Health Policy and Management.
Now that the law has changed, she said the “direct and immediate” effect would mean more people in Georgia with food stamps.
According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an estimated 6,665 people are restricted from getting food stamps due to the ban.
The data also notes the SNAP program has seen a 3.4 decrease in participants in the past year. Latest numbers indicate 62,000 participants receive assistance. However, officials say allowing drug offenders to receive benefits will not strain the system.
According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, the state releases approximately 19,000 convicted felons every year. Starting July 1, some of those released from prison will have access to SNAP benefits.
According to Adams, allowing drug felons to receive assistance may improve outcomes for families and the state as a whole.
“I think in the long run I would hope that aggregate well-being would improve,” she said. “The state will see things like decreased recidivism, which translates into cost savings.”
Adams believes the ban is indicative of a changing attitude towards drug offenders that is occurring nationwide.
“I think it’s time for us to stop punishing individuals who have done their time,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that this is part of a greater movement on a national scale to see that we as a society are moving towards supporting individuals after release as well as recidivism as a whole."
The professor said recidivism is an issue that concerns not only convicts, but it is a costly problem for the state overall.
“We know from research that when you systematically deny people benefits and services, the probability of them returning to jail is high,” Adams said.
On Wednesday, Deal also added he hopes to target probation procedures in next year’s criminal justice reforms.